Ajai Sahni on Canada and the Khalistani Movement

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Ajai Sahni on Canada and the Khalistani Movement

“The present ‘movement’ is diaspora-led, fed by the ISI and implicitly supported by some countries, most prominently Canada, for geostrategic reasons and domestic political imperatives.”

Ajai Sahni on Canada and the Khalistani Movement

A photograph of late temple president Hardeep Singh Nijjar is seen on a banner outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara Sahib in Surrey, British Columbia, on Sept. 18, 2023. Nijjar was gunned down in his vehicle while leaving the temple parking lot in June.

Credit: Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP

The recent spat between the Indian and Canadian governments over the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar outside a Sikh temple in British Columbia in Canada on June 18 has put the activities of Khalistanis in the diaspora under the spotlight. Nijjar, a prominent Khalistani separatist living in Canada, was wanted in India for over a dozen terrorism-related cases. Canada has accused India of involvement in Nijjar’s killing. India has rejected the allegation and accused Canada of sheltering Khalistan extremists and turning a blind eye to their fundraising, anti-India propaganda, training of militants, etc., in support of Khalistani secessionism.

In an interview with The Diplomat’s South Asia editor Sudha Ramachandran, Ajai Sahni, founding member and executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management and South Asia Terrorism Portal, threw light on Western — especially Canadian — appeasement of Khalistani secessionist activity. No action is taken against those delivering hate speeches in public against members of the Hindu community and Indian leaders. “Charges of funding terrorism and conspiring to commit acts of terrorism in Punjab are simply not investigated,” Sahni said.

That said, the Khalistan movement today is not as serious as the secessionist insurgency that raged in India in the 1980s-early 1990s. The magnitude of the threat is being hyped up by the BJP government and media and trolls aligned with it, Sahni pointed out.

The Khalistan movement in India was wiped out by the 1990s. Why has it erupted again suddenly?

I don’t think the data in any measure suggests a “sudden eruption.” Between 1981 and 1993, the peak years of terrorism, 21,443 persons were killed in the Khalistani insurgency in Punjab. In six of these years, fatalities were above a thousand a year. At the peak in 1991, 5,265 persons were killed, including 2,591 civilians, 497 security forces personnel, and 2,177 terrorists. Thereafter, while there have been several zero-fatality years, occasional incidents have also been recorded fairly regularly. There were no Khalistan-linked fatalities between 2008 and 2015, but there have been fatalities in each year since — but no more than three in any single year. No “sudden eruption” is visible in these trends — though we do see a motivated “eruption” in social media as well as on certain mainstream media channels.

In the recent past, and particularly since the “Referendum 2020” rally in London, which was organized by the Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), the Khalistani diaspora have become very visible.  A large part of the blame for this falls on the government of India and the hysteria whipped up by its agencies and the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) social media troll armies.

Most of the “Referendum” meetings organized thereafter have attracted a few hundred participants, except for the September 2022 meeting at Brampton, which, news reports suggest, was attended by an estimated 100,000 Khalistani supporters. Yet, each “Referendum” receives far greater publicity from Indian government agencies and captive media than from anything the SFJ could engineer on its own.

The farmers’ agitation is another case in point. This was an overwhelmingly secular agitation dominated by farmers’ unions and a large spontaneous following, principally from Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh but also with some participation from several other states. It was the Narendra Modi government that sought to project the farmers’ agitation as a “Khalistani” movement — a complete falsehood till, at later stages, this became a marginal self-fulfilling prophecy, with some Khalistani elements trying to infiltrate the movement. It is significant that, while farmers from Punjab did dominate the movement, other groupings— and particularly the farmers from Uttar Pradesh — played a decisive role at critical stages of the protracted agitation and the government’s repressive responses.

Amritpal Singh’s sudden appearance and “rise” is another case in point, where a fringe movement and insignificant leader was drummed up by state agencies and captive media into a “national security threat” and “Bhindranwale 2.0.” Amritpal was arrested and is presently incarcerated at Dibrugarh Jail in Assam. There is not a sympathetic voice in Punjab speaking out for him. This is not something that would happen in the case of a leader with real grassroots support. But this “social media giant” was created by the ruling BJP’s troll armies and captive media.

Could you throw light on the present movement? How does it compare to the one in the 1980s?

There is absolutely no comparison between the movements of the 1980s and early 1990s, on the one hand, and what is ongoing at present. I have already mentioned the difference in sheer scale. Moreover, there was certainly very significant mass alienation and sympathy for the Khalistanis among the Sikhs as a result of Operations Blue Star and Woodrose, as well as the then-government-orchestrated anti-Sikh pogrom in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. This support base dwindled over time, as Khalistani atrocities against the people of Punjab, and particularly the Sikhs, who constituted more than 65 percent of the victims of Khalistani violence, escalated, even as extortion, expropriation and rape became the mainstays of the movement.

Paramjit Singh Judge, one of the authors of a study by three professors of the Guru Nanak Dev University, “Terrorism in Punjab: Understanding Grassroots Reality” (1999), noted: “I know one doctor in Majitha who terminated 10-15 pregnancies every Thursday. No one openly told you of the rapes… Often terrorists would enter a house just before dinner, have dinner, and then force all the family members except the young women up to the terrace… The majority of the terrorists died within a year. In that time, they had access to 50 to 55 women.”

The present “movement” is diaspora-led, fed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and implicitly supported by some countries for “geo-strategic reasons” and on domestic political imperatives, most prominently including Canada. Significant resources are clearly being pumped into the Referendum campaign, as well as into “operations” in Punjab, essentially executed by mercenary organized-crime gangs, and including several non-Sikh perpetrators. There are also a few symbolic actions, such as raising flags on government buildings or painting slogans, for which the SFJ announces large dollar rewards, which are never paid, except in rare cases where a fraction of the promised amount has actually been transferred.

The common feature between the movement of the 1980s and early 1990s, and the present phase, is the role of the diaspora, which has always sought to be the ideological provocateur. Its success in the earlier phase was the result of compounding domestic factors in Punjab, most significantly the Congress party’s destabilizing politics in the state, its mischief in propping up Bhindranwale, and the events that followed. Absent domestic political mischief, the diaspora is unlikely to achieve anything significant in Punjab.

Unfortunately, political leaders, both at the center and in the state, continue to play the communal and destabilization card, pumping sufficient oxygen for the movement to survive, though not to thrive.

You have written that there is little support for an independent Khalistan among Sikhs in India, and that most of the recruits here are mercenaries. So why should the Indian government be worried about pro-Khalistan activities in the diaspora?

Is the government really “worried”? Or does it want to keep the idea of another “national security threat” perpetually alive to pander to its own majoritarian communal vote bank? We see comparable patterns of exaggeration, falsification and incitement with regard to the Muslim minority and, most recently, the Christian (Kuki) tribals in Manipur.

Despite the tremendous decline in insurgency and terrorism across every theater in the country, constant and ludicrous comparisons are made with peak phases of terrorism every time there is an incident, however minor. The comparison of the current situation in Punjab and the 1980s-early 1990s is a case in point, as are periodic and equally absurd comparisons between the current situation in Jammu and Kashmir and the situation that existed there in the 1990s and early 2000s. These assertions tend to grow more strident when some election is around the corner.

Why was Nijjar labeled a terrorist? Has he carried out violent attacks in India or is he a political activist?

Nijjar is wanted in more than a dozen terrorism-linked cases in Punjab. The chargesheets include inter alia, the October 2007 blast in Ludhiana, which resulted in the death of six persons, and injuries to another 40; the August 2009 killing of Rashtriya Sikh Sangat leader Rulda Singh at Patiala; the April 2010 bomb explosion at Arya Samaj Chowk in Patiala in which six persons were injured; the July 2010 seizure of weapons and explosives intended for terrorist action at Khanna; the February 2015 plots to kill Baba Piara Singh Bhaniarawala, a Dalit socio-religious leader accused of sacrilege by orthodox Sikhs, and Sanjeev Ghanauli, an RSS leader, for their “anti-Panthic” activities; the April 2016 plot to carry out targeted killings by Mandeep Singh, who had been trained by Nijjar in Canada and sent to India to revive terrorism in Punjab; the November 2020 killing of Dera Sacha Sauda member, Manohar Lal; the January 2021 attempted murder of a Hindu priest, Pragyia Gyan Muni, at Bharsinghpura village (Nijjar’s home village); the May 2021 attempt to kidnap and kill Shakti Singh of village Dagu Romana, Faridkot, and killing of Tejinder Singh aka Pinka at Moga; the September 2021 arrests and seizure of weapons and explosives seizure intended for targeted killings at Bhikiwind, Tarn Taran; and the February 2022 arrest by Haryana Police of a three-member gang sourcing weapons from Pakistan. The weapons were intended to carry out targeted killings in Punjab.

In all these cases, Nijjar was accused of planning, coordinating, funding, or otherwise facilitating these operations in Punjab.

Significantly, many of these cases have now been taken over by the National Investigation Agency and are subsumed under the investigation into the terrorist-gangster networks operating in Punjab. Several of these cases were executed through the agency of Canada-based gangster and prominent Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF) member Arshdeep Singh aka Arsh Dalla. Dalla also runs an extortion network in Punjab, which allegedly funds the Nijjar-led KTF, which has been implicated in several killings and terrorist operations.

Why have Western governments, especially Canada, not taken India’s concerns seriously? Is it naivete? Domestic politics?

Sikh supporters of an independent state of Khalistan protest in London against the Indian government, May 15, 2015. Image from Wikipedia/ Vimalkanda

Historically, virtually every Western government has tended to ignore or belittle Indian concerns. However, more recently, the U.S. and U.K. have shown some inclination to greater cooperation.

Canada, however, has the worst record in this regard, not only in terms of acting against individuals accused of terrorism on Indian soil but also in connection with the violation of its own laws on Canadian soil as well. Senior Canadian politicians, including leaders from Canada’s ruling Liberal Party and its coalition partner, the Jagmeet Singh-led New Democratic Party, have been seen at prominent Khalistani demonstrations where terrorists are glorified, demands for violence against India are articulated, and the membership of terrorist organizations banned in Canada – the Babbar Khalsa International, for instance – is openly flaunted.

Hate speech and incitement, including documented calls for violence against ideological opponents, the Hindu community, and Indian leaders, which is punishable under Canadian law, have evoked no response whatsoever from a manifestly biased Canadian administration. Charges of funding terrorism and conspiring to commit acts of terrorism in Punjab are simply not investigated. Well-established norms to prevent immigration of persons with criminal and terrorist backgrounds – Nijjar included – are ignored in the case of Khalistanis.

The motives for this conduct lie in racism, geopolitical calculations, as well as domestic vote-bank politics.

Going forward, what should India do to contain the separatist movement?

Excitement over the “separatist movement” is overwhelmingly a diversionary tactic exploited by most political parties in Punjab as well as at the center to distract from the very real problems confronting the state and its people. Multiple crises in the economic, financial, industrial, agrarian, employment, educational, environmental, and social sectors – the last includes an epidemic of drug trafficking and abuse – afflict the state, and many of these are of very long provenance. Little policy effort has been visible over the past decades to address any of these, as each steadily worsened.

At the level of security, the Khalistan movement is a domestic irritant, and will so remain, as long as other issues afflicting the state are not addressed. When things come to a head in any other sphere, some politician or other invariably sees benefit in giving it a communal – including Khalistani – color, so the Khalistani discourse is never far from the surface.

While we are happy – and right – to condemn what is happening in Canada, it would be more productive to look inward and see the mischief our own political parties are doing in Punjab, and the failures of our own investigative and legal system to take effective – and proportionate – action against Khalistani terrorists, supporters, and sympathizers. The overuse of the terrorism clauses under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act [UAPA] is a clumsy and indiscriminate tool that is being used against far too many ‘offenders,’ and the cases usually collapse in court after the accused have spent years in jail. The weaknesses of our policing, prosecution and judicial system have resulted in the repeated failure of our extradition requests, even in the absence of malice in respondent countries.

Crucially, the role of the Akali parties and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, the top Sikh religious administration, needs to be closely reviewed. Many of the activities that we condemn the Canadian Khalistanis for engaging in are no different from what the Akalis and the SGPC periodically do. The portraits of Bhindranwale and other Khalistani “martyrs” have been installed within the Golden Temple Complex, and can be found in many Gurudwaras (Sikh shrines) across Punjab. Explicit or veiled Khalistani positions are articulated from time to time, to exert pressure on the center, or to corner political opponents in the state.

Finally, as long as the Hindutva ideology and extremism dominate the national discourse, there can be little ideological response to Khalistani extremists who demand a separate state for the Sikhs. Unless India returns to its secular and inclusive roots, communal identity-based politics will remain the principal political mobilizer across the country. Punjab is no exception; nor, as we are seeing now, is the Indian diaspora.

Why hasn’t India taken the matter of Canada’s support to Khalistanis to the  Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog?

The FATF is a toothless, deeply politicized body that is controlled by the U.S. and its Western allies. It is not a judicial body, nor has it any real investigative capacities and powers. It seeks formal compliance by governments to certain “outcomes,” and even where this is lacking, if it serves the transient political whims of the dominant Western powers, it is entirely comfortable with providing decisions that are manifestly in bad faith. The case of taking Pakistan off the FATF’s grey list, despite overwhelming evidence of continuing terrorist activities from Pakistani soil and open financial activities, including the public mobilization of funds by a number of internationally and domestically banned terrorist groups, is a case in point.